The Validity Of The Strange Situation

Ever since linkages have been chronicled between nonmaternal care and attachment insecurity, questions have been raised about whether the infant's independent and exploratory behavior in the Strange Situation is mistakenly judged to be evidence of avoidance, especially in the case of infants who experience routine nonmaternal care. Clarke-Stewart (1989), Thompson (1988), and others have argued that these children's daily separation experiences may lead them to behave more independently in the Strange Situation because they are less stressed by the separations purposefully designed into the procedure. Such a methodological artifact could then cause them to be (erroneously) classified as insecure-avoidant more frequently than children without early and extensive infant day care experience. Not only is it the case that a comprehensive review of relevant studies by Clarke-Stewart and Fein (1983) showed that infant day care experience was not related to less (or more) stress in the Strange Situation (as indexed by distress), but when I carried out a small study using subjects from my second and third longitudinal investigations to directly address this proposition, I found no support whatsoever for it (Belsky & Braungart, 1991). More specifically, infants with extensive nonmaternal care experience who were classified insecure-avoidant did not evince less distress and more play than those similarly classified with limited or no nonmaternal care experience; in fact, the former actually played significantly less during reunions—exactly the opposite of what critics of the Strange Situation methodology had propositioned. Just as noteworthy as our findings are those of Berger, Levy, and Compaan (1995); these investigators found that classifications of children's attachment security based on their behavior during a standard pediatric exam (in which no separation of infant from parent occurred) are highly concordant with Strange Situation classifications for both infants with extensive child care experience in the first year (81.5% concordance) and those without such experience (76%). In others words, my own work as well as that of Berger et al. (1995) failed to find any evidence to suggest that the Strange Situation was an invalid methodology for studying one group of children in particular, namely those with repeated separation experiences due to routine nonmaternal care.

Because these evaluations of the validity of Strange Situation classifications in the case of infants with lots of experience being separated from their mothers involved small samples, the NICHD Study of Early Child Care provided an ideal opportunity to address this issue again. Comparisons were made between children who averaged more than 30 hours per week of care from 3-15 months of age with others who experienced less than 10 hours per week of nonmaternal care during the same developmental period on measures of distress when separated from mother. Not only was it the case that the two groups were not different in terms of how upset infants became when separated, but it was also true that coders' ratings of their confidence in classifying children in terms of the three primary attachment categories (i.e., avoidant, resistant, secure) did not vary as a function of nonmaternal care experience. Thus, it was concluded that there were no empirical grounds to question the internal validity of the Strange Situation in the large data set; therefore, classifications of children in this separation-based procedure could be regarded as valid even in the case of children with extensive experience with separation (NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 1997).

Effects of Early Child Care

Having established empirically that one could have confidence in the Strange Situation classifications of children with extensive separation experience, the NICHD Early Child Care Research Network (1997) was now in a position to powerfully address a question that had stimulated much debate and controversy. Interestingly, results of this comprehensive investigation revealed that neither the quantity of nonmaternal care, the quality of such care, the stability of care, nor the child's age of entry (within the first 15 months of life), as isolated factors, accounted for variation in infant-mother attachment security. Even though maternal sensitivity when considered by itself did predict attachment security, yet features of child care, when considered individually, did not, it was not the case that features of early child care proved to be totally unrelated to attachment security. Consistent with Bronfenbrenner's (1979, p. 38) dictum that "in the ecology of human development the principal main effects are likely to be interactions," we found that even though most children with early care experience were not more (or less) likely to develop insecure attachments to their mothers, this was not the case when certain ecological conditions co-occurred. More specifically, rates of insecurity were higher than would otherwise have been expected (on the basis of maternal sensitivity alone) when infants received poorer quality (i.e., insensitive) care from their mothers and (a) low quality nonmaternal care, or (b) more than 10 hours per week of nonmaternal care, or (c) more than one nonmaternal care arrangement in their first 15 months of life. In other words, it was under conditions of "dual-risk" that early care was associated, for the most part, with attachment insecurity. These findings were not only consistent with a controversial risk-factor conclusion that I had drawn a decade earlier about the effects of infant day care as currently experienced in the United States (Belsky, 1986, 1988), but with the results summarized above linking parent, infant, and social-contextual conditions with the probability of an infant establishing a secure or insecure attachment relationship with mother or with father. That is, it is knowledge of multiple features of the caregiving ecology that provides the best prediction of attach ment security. And, moreover, it is when sources of risk accumulate that the probability of insecurity is greatest (Belsky, 2001). Importantly, when infants were followed up at 3 years of age and seen again in the Strange Situation, only one of the dual-risk findings re-emerged, indicating that the combination of low levels of maternal sensitivity and lots of time in child care (irrespective of quality) was related to elevated rates of insecure attachment (NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 2001).

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